Nobel Prize for Physics Speculation

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 3, 2022 by telescoper

Just  to mention that tomorrow morning (Tuesday October 4th 2022) will see the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics. I must remember to make sure my phone is fully charged. Of course this is just one of the announcements. This morning, for example, there is the announcement of the Prize for Physiology or Medicine and on Wednesday is the Prize for Chemistry both of these sometimes go to physicists too. You can find links to all the announcements here.

I do, of course, already have a Nobel Prize Medal of my own already, dating from 2006, when I was lucky enough to attend the prize-giving ceremony and banquet.

I was, however, a guest of the Nobel Foundation rather than a prizewinner, so my medal is made of chocolate rather than gold. I think after 16 years the chocolate is now inedible, but it serves as a souvenir of a very nice weekend in Stockholm!

It’s been a good few years for cosmology and astrophysics, with Jim Peebles  & Didier Queroz (2019), Roger Penrose, Andrea Ghez & Reinhard Genzel (2020) following on from Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish (2017) for the detection of gravitational waves.  I think it’s very unlikely that it will be in this area again.

I have no idea who will win but I have on previous occasions suggested Alain Aspect, Anton Zeilinger and John Clauser for their Bell’s inequality experiments and contributions to the understanding of quantum phenomena, including entanglement. I’m probably wrong again though. I have a spectacularly bad track record at predicting the Physics Nobel Prize winner, but then so does everybody else.

Feel free to make your predictions through the comments box below.

To find out you’ll have to wait for the announcement, around about 10.45 (UK/Irish time) tomorrow morning. I’ll update tomorrow when the wavefunction has collapsed.

Anyway, for the record, I’ll reiterate my opinion that while the Nobel Prize is flawed in many ways, particularly because it no longer really reflects how physics research is done, it does at least have the effect of getting people talking about physics. Surely that at least is a good thing?

Faking Proceedings

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , , on October 2, 2022 by telescoper

Almost every day I get an invitation to a fake conference somewhere, usually somewhere nice (to make the event more attractive). Usually these are caught by my spam filter, but when one isn’t the conference often turns out to be in a field I don’t work in. A small fraction that are in cosmology or astrophysics but fortunately those fields are relatively small and it’s quite easy to identify whether or not they are bona fide. I’ve often wondered what happens if you turn up at one of these fake meetings, but not enough to waste money on trying to find out. Perhaps one of my readers knows? One day someone should turn up at one of them with a film crew…

It seems that along with these fake conferences there are fake conference proceedings, not just proceedings of fake conferences but proceedings of conferences that didn’t actually happen.

Publishers make a killing from publishing books of conference proceedings, which generally have a very short shelf-life. I stopped contributing to conference proceedings some time ago as I don’t think they’re worth the effort any more. It’s far better in my view for contributors just to put a copy of their slides on the conference website. I fully accept however that conference proceedings or similar publications may be important in other fields and it does seem that there is still a considerable traffic in them, with some publishers – including Institute of Physics Publishing – setting up special journals to exploit the traffic.

My attention was drawn today to an article in The Times (behind a paywall). The Times piece seems to be based on this one by the excellent Retraction Watch. It seems the IOP publishing system has been comprehensively hacked by (mostly Chinese) publishing mills. As a result the publisher has retracted 494 papers:

The vast majority – 463 articles – are from the Journal of Physics: Conference Series, while 21 are from IOP Conference Series: Materials Science & Engineering, and 10 are from IOP Conference Series: Earth & Environmental Science.

A statement from the IOP explains

These articles are being retracted following an allegation that raised concerns regarding several manuscripts. IOP Publishing has conducted a comprehensive investigation, which indicated that some papers may have been created, manipulated, and/or sold by a commercial entity.

I’m told that to be named as an author of a paper costs anything from about $500 to $US5000, depending on the calibre of the journal and how prominently you want your name to appear. It’s easy to find companies willing to provide such a service, e.g. on Facebook.

Of course this episode raises serious questions about the quality of the peer review applied to these papers, but the more serious issue is how science let itself get into a mindset that fetishizes publications in the first place. The publishing industry must share some of the blame for this. As long as this absurd situation exists there will be unscrupulous people willing and able to exploit it.

Maxim Vengerov at the National Concert Hall

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , on October 1, 2022 by telescoper

It’s not often that you get the chance to be present at the world premiere of a symphony, but that was the case last night when I went to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Ina Boyle Symphony No. 2 The Dream of the Rood was composed by Ina Boyle in 1930 but hadn’t been performed anywhere until last night. In fact Boyle was a prolific composer but few of her works were performed in her lifetime, largely because of her geographical isolation from the musical mainstream, and many still have not been.

Reading in the programme notes that Ina Boyle had composition lessons with Ralph Vaughan Williams, for which she travelled to London, I expected her Symphony No. 2 to show his influence but if it reminded me of any composer it would be Arnold Bax. Anyway, it’s a substantial work in three movements for a large orchestra.

The piece is inspired by a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem about the crucifixion of Christ, “rood” being an old world for “cross”. It opens with a rather folksy theme but the first movement – easily the best of the three – develops into sweeping melodic lines and moves into a more vigorous section describing the felling of the tree from which the cross was made. The other two movements (marked Adagio and Grave) represent a funeral procession and an exhortation to reflect on the meaning of the rood. Overall I thought there was too little tonal or rhythmic variety in the piece for it to be totally convincing as a symphony. However, as I’ve written on this blog many times, I go to concerts determined to get as much out of them as I can even if it isn’t fully satisfying in its entirety, there are parts of this work which are very good.

Traditionally in a concert of classical music the Symphony comes after the interval and the Concerto for so instrument comes before. This usual ordering was turned on its head at last night’s concert as after the wine break we had violinist Maxim Vengerov playing two works. No doubt most people came to hear Maxim Vengerov rather than the Symphony by Boyle and it was a good plan to put the latter first to discourage people from leaving at the interval.

I was surprised when Vengerov appeared on stage resplendent in a cobalt blue suit with matching trainers, but there is no question that he is a very charismatic performer. The Violin Concerto No. 1 by Sergei Prokofiev is a very interesting piece that veers between a tender, almost childlike, simplicity and pyrotechnic energy verging on the savage. It does have some of the call-and-answer moments between soloist and orchestra of a traditional concerto, but at times this piece feels more like a blazing row than a civilized discussion.

The second piece was Tzigane by Maurice Ravel, a much shorter work in the form of a rhapsody starting with a long solo cadenza for the violin leading into a succession of virtuosic dance-like passages of increasing complexity and excitement. It’s obviously a technically demanding work but Vengerov looked like he was enjoying every minute!

Maxim Vengerov last night. The suit looked brighter in the flesh.
Picture Credit: National Symphony Orchestra

Vengerov, who has played many times in Dublin, was a huge hit with the audience and was greeted at the end with rapturous applause. He rewarded us with an encore of a Bach piece for solo violin, dedicated the victims of the conflict in Ukraine.

And then it was back to Pearse station for the train home to Maynooth.

P.S. I wonder if Maxim Vengerov has a brother called Minim?

Rainy Season

Posted in Biographical, Cricket, Irish Language with tags , , , , on September 30, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday saw the end of this year’s County Championship cricket season*, which many people regard as the official end of summer. As if to prove the point today, strong westerly winds have brought a deluge of rain all morning.

While I was waiting for my coffee to brew before venturing out into the rain this morning I was thinking about some idiomatic expressions for heavy rain. The most familiar one in English is Raining Cats and Dogs which, it appears, originated in a poem by Jonathan Swift that ends with the lines:

Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip tops come tumbling down the flood.

My French teacher at school taught me the memorable if slightly indelicate Il pleut comme vache qui pisse, although there are other French expressions involving, among other things nails, frogs and halberds.

One of my favourites is the Welsh Mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn which means, bizarrely, “It’s raining old ladies and sticks”. There is also Mae hi’n bwrw cyllyll a ffyrc – “It’s raining knives and forks”.

Related idiomatic expressions in Irish are constructed differently. There isn’t a transitive verb meaning “to rain” so there is no grammatical way to say “it rains something”. The way around this is to use a different verb to represent, e.g., throwing. For example Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí which means “It’s throwing cobblers’ knives”.

Talking (of) cobblers, I note that in Danish there is Det regner skomagerdrenge – “It’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices” and in Germany Es regnet Schusterjungs – “It’s raining cobblers’ boys”.

Among the other strange expressions in other languages are Está chovendo a barba de sapo (Portuguese for “It’s raining toads’ beards”), Пада киша уби миша (Serbian for “It’s raining and killing mice”),  Det regner trollkjerringer (Norwegian for “It’s raining female trolls”) and Estan lloviendo hasta maridos (Spanish for “It is even raining husbands”).

No sign of any husbands outside right now so I’ll get back to work. My PhD student is giving a seminar this afternoon so I have to think of some difficult questions to ask her! (Joking).

*For the record I should mention that Glamorgan drew their last game of the County Championship against Sussex (at Hove) and thus finished in 3rd place in Division 2. They might have beaten Middlesex to second place had they won and Middlesex lost their final matches but in the end both games were high scoring draws. Glamorgan lost to Middlesex in feeble style a couple of weeks ago so I think it was fair outcome.

What a difference a fortnight makes…

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , on September 30, 2022 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Bonkers) will recall that a couple of weeks ago I complained about a ridiculous gas bill. Well, a fortnight (and a lot of hassle) later, SSE have at last decided to use the real meter reading instead of the absurd estimate, with the result that my bill has changed slightly:

That’s a difference of £86,444.90. I’d call that a result.

The story doesn’t end there, however, as I have yet to persuade SSE to actually give me the (almost) thousand pounds they owe me. They seem to think they should just keep it as an interest free loan to offset future payments.

Building Momentum

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on September 29, 2022 by telescoper

There may be no longer be any momentum in the direction of building a new Student Centre at Maynooth, but over the last few days I’ve been studying the details of the review of the “Building Momentum” pay proposal for public services employees over the next couple of years. The proposal has been put to a ballot of members of various public sector unions, including the one to which I belong, the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT).

Unlike what happens in the United Kingdom, there is a single agreement covering all public sector workers and the unions that represent them and, also unlike the United Kingdom, University staff are treated as public sector employees, rather like civil servants. We are all members of the same pension scheme too, also unlike the UK.

Back in August, there was talk of industrial action over the inadequacy of the Government’s existing offer given the recent increases in the cost of living, but the ballot on that was suspended to allow voting on the revised offer that emerged from a review, perhaps in response to union pressure. As IFUT explained,

Arising from this review a set of proposals were agreed in August which include additional pay increases for members in 2022 and increases in 2023.  When the additional increases are taken into account, members’ pay would increase by a minimum of 9.5% during the period covered by Building Momentum (2021 – 2023).

Although expressing reservations, which I share, IFUT states

After careful consideration and scrutiny of the proposal, and taking into account the views of the membership as expressed by our Council, the Executive Committee advises that IFUT members should vote to accept these proposals.

I would have preferred if a bit more could have been done for University teachers at the lower end of the pay scales but, on balance, together with the cost-of-living measures announced in Tuesday’s budget, I think it’s a reasonable compromise, which will bring some degree of certainty to the financial situation of many people. I have therefore voted to accept the offer.

The Cancellation of Maynooth’s Student Centre

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 28, 2022 by telescoper

Here is a promotional video made just two years ago which describes an exciting and much needed new Student Centre at Maynooth University:

According to the Youtube page

This video is the first time we can share with you the vision for our new Student Centre. It gives you an impression of the dedication of MSU and MU in delivering a top-class student experience. We cannot wait to see the physical works begin and we will keep the student body updated as the project progresses.

Well, yesterday the student body was “updated” alright. The project has been abruptly cancelled by the Governing Authority. The reason is

The project has been adversely impacted by rapidly escalating costs, linked to technical construction issues as well as hyperinflation.

Not to be pedantic, the current economic situation in no way corresponds to “hyperinflation” as it is normally defined. However, it is true that costs are increasing especially in the construction industry and this will have put pressure on the University Management who took the easy way out by cancelling the project. I believe this to have been a very wrong, and indeed reprehensible, decision.

Students at Maynooth University voted in 2015 to pay a special levy of €150 per year specifically to fund this new Student Centre. Current students, who have just started the new academic year, will have paid this year’s levy – about 14,000 of them. All that money taken from students (many of whom struggled to afford it) has now been written off. Not surprisingly students feel that they have been fleeced. I say “not surprisingly” because they undoubtedly have been. It’s a scandal and a disgrace.

If you are on Twitter you can see some of the reaction under the hashtag #WheresMyLevy.

Here’s an example:

At very least the amounts collected should be returned. Whether that can be enforced by law is an open question.

The decision to sneak this announcement out while Ireland’s media were preoccupied with yesterday’s budget can have been taken for the purpose of burying it. The story did, however, make it onto the BBC website, and I’m sure the national media will follow. I hope this escalates to the highest levels of Government. I have written to my TD and I’m sure others will do likewise. Universities should not be allowed to treat their students like this.

UPDATE: The story is now on the main RTE News site.

MORE UPDATES: the story is now in the Irish Times, Irish Examiner, and The Journal, to name but three. There has also been lots of radio coverage. Student recruitment is going to be interesting this year...

The sum that has been wasted on this project in consultancy and architect fees up to now is so far undisclosed by Maynooth University, but I’m sure a Freedom of Information request will reveal it…

I’m afraid the decision to terminate the Student Centre is symptomatic of the current management of Maynooth University, which seems to think of students as mere commodity, and academic staff as a insubordinate servants. I could write about other reprehensible failures of governance here, but will refrain from doing so until proper procedures have been completed. Suffice to say that there’s a struggle going on for the soul of this institution, and at the moment it’s not going well.

I know this radical suggestion may prove controversial, but perhaps if university managements really want to get the best out of their staff and students then maybe they shouldn’t treat them like shit all the time?

Phone Matters

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on September 27, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday I managed to smash my mobile phone. It had been on the blink for some time because the screen was coming loose from the body of the phone, but it still worked OK. Yesterday however I managed to drop it on the floor whereupon it fell to bits and died. I took it to a local repair shop to ask if they could fix it. The guy there shook his head sadly and said it would cost €250 to repair. Since it was 5 years old anyway, I thought it was best just to buy a new phone, which I did, for about €350 (complete with screen protector).

It was even a struggle to get the SIM card out of the wrecked phone because the frame that holds it had twisted. In the end I managed. The new device therefore has the same phone number as the old one. It would have been a pain to have had to change that!

Dead Phone Society

I found it quite scary to realize how much I depend on my smartphone. Not only does it have apps for private things, such as banking and social media, but I also need it to authenticate access to work things from home as these have multi-factor authentication (MFA) that requires an app.

I was able to recover most things fairly straightforwardly but I still haven’t got the authenticator to work. I’ll probably have to take a trip to IT services to get that sorted.

On the bright side I managed to get the new phone to connect to eduroam, something my old phone never did…

Exploring the Cosmos at Maynooth

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 26, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve had a very busy day so far, what with giving my first lecture to the first-year Mathematical Physics students accidentally smashing my phone then buying a new one and trying to reinstall various necessary apps on it and now having a Euclid telecon, that all I have time to do now is post an advertisement for a special event on Maynooth Campus next Thursday (6th October) called Exploring the cosmos: from Exoplanets to Black Holes. As you will see, the title really on describes the first half. Here is the official blurb:

On the 6th of October, at 6.30pm, in the TSI Building Maynooth University will host an all-ages event to explore the vastness of space. Using stunning visualisations Maynooth University Astrophysicists will examine star and planet formation, peer back in time with our physicists trying to image the very edges of our visible universe, and take a journey into the unknown as we trace the origin and evolution of black holes.


18.30 Welcome

18.35: Emma Whelan: “Planet Hunting: How Maynooth University Astronomers are Searching for New Worlds”.

As of this month over 5000 exoplanets or new worlds have been discovered orbiting far flung stars millions of light years away from us. Emma will explore the hunt for exoplanets – planets outside our own solar system – and what scientists can learn about them. Emma will take you on a behind the scenes tour of the techniques astronomers use for finding new planets and the new insights astronomers hope the James Webb Space Telescope will bring.

18.55: John Regan: “Black Holes in Our Universe”

Black Holes are among the most exotic objects in our Universe. In this talk John will discuss the basics of black hole formation, how we can detect them today and the future of black hole hunting using gravitational wave observatories that Maynooth University is a part of. John will also discuss some of the strange effects you might encounter near a black hole – like time slowing down!

19.15: Tea & Coffee Break

19.45: Creidhe O’Sullivan: “Observations of the early Universe”

Creidhe will take us back to the origins of our universe. In her talk she will show you how scientists observe The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – a specific type of radiation left over from the Big Bang – and what it can tell us about the early Universe and its formation. Creidhe will also take us close to home and talk about the experiments that Maynooth University are involved with to observe the CMB.

20.05: Peter Coles: “The Cosmic Web”

Peter’s talk will focus on the large scale structure of the Universe and the ideas that physicists are weaving together to explain how it came to be the way it is. Over the last few decades astronomers have revealed that our cosmos is not only vast in scale – at least 14 billion light years in radius – but also exceedingly complex, with galaxies and clusters of galaxies linked together in a cosmic web of immense chains and sheets, surrounding giant voids of empty space. Cosmologists have developed theoretical explanations for its origin that involve exotic concepts such as dark matter and dark energy, producing a cosmic web of ideas that is in many ways as rich and fascinating as the Universe itself. Peter will also discuss the Euclid mission – a large ESA mission to map the geometry of the Universe and better understand the mysterious dark matter and dark energy, which make up most of the energy budget of the cosmos. Peter is involved in the European Space Agency’s Euclid mission.

20.30: Finish

It should be a fun evening. After two years of being restricted to online events it’s nice to be able to do public talks like this in person. If you’re around please come along. The event is free but you need to register, which you can do here.

Five Million Views in the Dark

Posted in Uncategorized on September 25, 2022 by telescoper

I just finished writing my notes for next week’s lectures and checked the blog statistics to discover that there have now been over 5,000,000 visits to this website. It’s been just over 14 years since I started blogging so that is about 360,000 hits per year on average, or just under 1000 a day. The actual daily figure varies considerably of course. It’s also worth mentioning that the number of distinct visitors is somewhat lower (just under 2 million). That means on average visitors come here about 2.5 times. On the other hand the visitor statistic probably overcounts because people may use different devices to access this site. Such details may matter to people who want to sell advertising, etc, but not to me.

I’m sure there are many blogs that get much more traffic than this one but I’m glad so many people have found things of interest here over the years, so thank you all for coming!